There’s a quote from Blade Runner which has long irritated me. It’s sampled in some Juno Reactor track, and so slides into my subconsciousness every time I try to zone in/out with the trance:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness at Tannhäuser Gate.
Out of context, it just seems so petty. You’re describing the wonder and immensity of the universe, I thought, and this is the best you’ve got? All the cosmos can offer you is the pretty pictures? It’s the equivalent of dropping acid, then just admiring the hallucinations as pieces of theatre.
I was planning a blogpost to that effect.
Then I looked up the video, and suddenly I’m a convert:
I probably shouldn’t try to put the effect of the clip into words. Suffice it to say, all is forgiven. This isn’t somebody bragging, it’s the hopeless attempt to telegraph into dying breath the most intense moments of a ‘lifetime’. The machine will not communicate — it can’t, any more than a human can verbalise hir innermost thoughts. But there’s glory in the attempt.
While I’m on the subject of scholastics (I’ve just been listening to a lecture on the subject): had Ken Macleod been so minded, he could have found plenty o material in medieval theology to justify robot religion — perhaps starting with ideas of grace. In Aristotle’s conception, Grace is a form within the soul. That means it’s a shape, a pattern. The material in which it is embedded is irrelevant, just as a pot is a pot whether wooden or ceramic. Grace in silico would not be inferior to Grace in vivo**: robots would be as capable as humans of faith, hope and love.
* bear in mind, this entire concept remains somewhat new and alien to me; I’m almost certainly butchering some carefully-considered principle. In all honesty, I don’t much care.
** Doubtless you could concoct other arguments for robot inferiority, perhaps arguing that they weren’t created directly by good, and so are merely a shadow of a shadow of his Goodness. After all, Christians have plenty of experience justifying racism; justifying discrimination against machines would be an order of magnitude easier.
Ken MacLeod, The Night Sessions. Near-future Scotland, recovering from a post-9/11 replay of the Wars of Religion. Churches are allowed to exist only on a private level, with the state studiously ignoring their existence. So when Detective Adam Ferguson begins to investigate the murder of his priest, his attention — and his superiors’ — is on the political and bureaucratic consequences almost as much as on the rapidly-escalating series of killings.
MacLeod’s science fiction is, among much else, a vehicle for satire on the preset. Here it’s most entertaining when confined to small details: Creationist theme parks, for example, or gangster-ridden “Capitalism with Russian Characteristics”. His broader swipes on religion mostly fall flat. Towards the end there is a particularly ludicrous conversion as a True Believer is confronted with the contradictions of the bible* — a shaky plot device on the biblical literalism which a certain kind of atheist shares with only the most extreme of protestant sects.
The science fiction elements are largely window-dressing, with the exception of the robots. Macleod’s robots are superior not only in strength and intelligence, but in their ability to understand human emotion. They unnerve people, even though they are no longer given humanoid form to avoid this very problem. Police robots are loyal and devoted sidekicks to their masters, and the strength of this bond is one of the assumptions driving the plot. And, finally, there’s the question of whether robots could be affected by religion.
These are all interesting questions, but the pace of the book prevents MacLeod exploring them. The Night Sessions is fundamentally a thriller and a police procedural, and theories of robotic personhood have to take a back-seat to that.
* ETA: later, it occurs to me that the nature of this is partly a comment on the human/robot comparison. The human is defeated in the same way robots are according to B-movie cliche: show them a contradiction, and wait for them to blow a fuse. Meanwhile the robots, emotionally advanced far beyond human level, have no trouble on this point.
I’ve lately been trying to project possible futures that don’t include any kind of singularity, be it a minor one (like the steam engine) or a massive one (strongly superhuman A.I.s that are to us as we are to cats and dogs). Mostly they require either a malthusian collapse, or repressive legislative/political forces. So, to that extent, any SF that doesn’t try to address the issue is either a dystopia or a fantasy.
Crooked Timber book recommendation threads are always, always worth reading. This time, fantasy, with an interesting number of people trying to worm some SF in one way or another. Why are there more people talking about ideas, people and society in an SF than a fantasy setting? Can we blame it all on Tolkein?